Making a List and Checking It Twice

Better lists make better personal and professional documents and website content.

Bulleted listOften the best way to convey lots of information with maximum clarity in minimum space is through vertical lists. Vertical lists work well for brochures, flyers, and reports; website content; PowerPoint presentations; handouts for your class; and resumes and cover letters. Done well, vertical lists will help your readers quickly and easily comprehend the important information you want them to know.

But “done well” is easier said than done, and constructing vertical lists that are clear, concise, and consistent can be tricky. So here are some tips for avoiding common list-making errors and for creating bang-up vertical lists that will add zip and polish to your next project.

The first principle to keep in mind is parallel structure, and the key to parallel structure is consistency. Parallel structure includes (among other things) organizing the list so that each item begins in a similar manner. For example, if you’re talking about actions, try to begin every list item with an action word (i.e., a verb), and typically you should make sure items are either all single words or short phrases or all complete sentences. In the following example, the elements are parallel—each item is a phrase (not a complete sentence) and each begins with a verb.

Here’s what our team of auto-care specialists will do when you bring in your car or truck:

  • Change the oil and filter
  • Check the tire pressure
  • Top off all fluids
  • Inspect the brakes
  • Rotate the tires (as needed)
  • Replace non-working blinker bulbs

Often, however, we’ll see a list formatted with little regard for parallel structure, such as this one:

Here’s what our team of auto-care specialists will do when you bring in your car or truck:

  • Change the oil and filter
  • Tire pressure
  • Fluids
  • Thorough brake inspection
  • If needed, rotate the tires
  • We’ll even replace your non-working blinker bulbs

Did you notice how the first item in the list began with a verb, the second with a noun, the third with just a single word (a noun), the fourth with an adjective, the fifth with a conditional phrase, and the sixth item was a complete sentence. That’s kind of crazy, but it’s how many people format their vertical lists.

When the elements are parallel, it’s easier for your reader to quickly comprehend the information.

The second principle for making great lists is to be consistent with formatting. Lists should generally be introduced with a complete sentence followed by a colon. For example,

Here are the ingredients for a delicious pineapple upside-down cake:

If the listed items are complete sentences, they should be punctuated as complete sentences, including ending each item with a period. If they are single words or short phrases, no ending punctuation is required (as in the lists above). If, however, the list items complete the introductory element, each should be ended with a semicolon, as in the following:

The skills and qualifications that set me apart from the rest include

  • top-notch computer literacy;
  • outstanding customer service;
  • a strong commitment to diversity; and
  • excellent communication skills.

Notice how there was no punctuation after the introductory element because the list items complete the sentence—in vertical form. Each item is separated from the following one by a semicolon (not a comma), and the final item terminates the list-sentence with a period. (The and before the last item is optional.) You will also notice that each item is a particular skill or ability preceded by an adjective.

Here’s a final word on using bullets, numbers, or nothing at all before items. There is no hard-and-fast rule on this, but you should heed a couple of principles:

The Principle of Logic. If you are creating a list of steps in a process, chapters in a book, or something that needs to have some logical sequence or ordering, it’s usually best to use numbers instead of bullets. If no particular order is needed, perhaps arranging the items alphabetically would make logical sense.

The Principle of Consistency. When using bullets, try to use the same or similar bullets throughout. Bold, black dots (like those used in the examples above) are often best. Or you might choose to use square bullets or horizontal dashes. Whatever you use, try to keep all bullets in the document or page the same. I’ve seen job seekers “dress up” their resumes with fancy wingding bullets: stars, pointing fingers, balloons, pretty flowers, and the like. Unless you’re making a flyer for a party or another lighthearted purpose, stick to simple bullets—or even none at all.[1]

A well-organized and styled vertical list will maximize limited space, help your readers quickly grasp the information, and impress those readers with your solid grasp of Standard Written English. As a result, you will better serve your customers and clients, and maybe even gain an edge on your competition.   Δ

(Questions? Comments? Let me know in the comment area below. And please “like” this post and share it to your social media feeds. Your feedback is valuable.)


[1] By the way—if you didn’t notice it, you just read a two-item list with parallel structure. Each item began with a noun phrase (“The Principle of __________.”), followed by a paragraph of description.

© 2016 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.

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Author: Dean Christensen

Educator, copyeditor, writer, voiceover guy, baseball bug, logophile, classical music afficionado, classic rock 'n' roll lover, classic-movie buff, bibliophile, former this, used to be that, and future who knows what. Every day is an adventure in learning.

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